A Dogwood’s Life

I learned something the other day about native dogwood trees. There are two types you are most likely to find in the Chicago area: flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia).

Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida
Flowering Dogwood.
Photo: Missouri Botanic Garden

Flowering dogwoods are not common in Chicago, but you will see one occasionally. They are very hard to find in area nurseries. I had always thought that the reason was anthracnose, a disease that has killed many dogwoods in the eastern half of the country. This is a shame because the flowering dogwood is an extremely beautiful small tree, and the red berries are a very valuable food for birds.

I had been resistant to planting a flowering dogwood because of the potential for disease. Judy, though, has been hankering after one and last year I gave in and ordered a bare root flowering dogwood from ForestFarm. I coddled it last year with lots of extra water and top dressings of compost, and it has just survived its first winter.

Flowering dogwoods have a better chance, of course, with an appropriate site: light shade and moist, slightly acidic soil. The spot I chose has the shade and the moisture, but not acidic soil.

Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida
Flowering dogwood is an understory tree. Photo: Missouri Botanic Garden.


Pagoda dogwood is sometimes mentioned as a good alternative to flowering dogwood. Pagoda dogwood is admired for it’s horizontal branching, but the flowers are ho hum compared to flowering dogwood . Like flowering dogwood, pagoda dogwood is a high value tree for birds. I would say this tree is considerably more common in my area than flowering dogwood.

Last Saturday I was talking to Lynette Rodriguez, the instructor at the class I’ve just started at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Lynette has been a horticulturist at the Garden and now owns a garden design and maintenance firm, A Finer Touch.

Pagoda Dogwood, Cornus alternifolia
Pagoda dogwood.
Photo: http://www.wildflower.org

Lynette said that in the Chicago area, it’s the pagoda dogwood that is more vulnerable to anthracnose. The reason: it likes a cooler climate, and is happier in places like Wisconsin and Minnesota. The more common problem here with flowering dogwood is hardiness. However, hardiness is not as much of an issue in areas closer to Lake Michigan, where the winters are somewhat moderated.

So, my fellow Chicago-area gardeners: think twice before planting a pagoda dogwood! And consider the beautiful flowering dogwood!

Probably more common in Chicago than either C. florida or C. alternifolia is the exotic Chinese Dogwood (C. kousa). Chinese dogwood has flowers similar to the flowering dogwood, but its berries are not attractive to North American birds. There are also a number of hybrids between the native and Chinese dogwoods.

Do you have a dogwood tree in your garden, and if so, what kind?

38 Comments on “A Dogwood’s Life”

  1. I love dogwood trees! The native Cornus florida grows wild in my garden, though I have purchased a few named varieties and planted them, too. Just this weekend we added a red flowering one, and it is stunning. I have some dogwoods over 50 yrs old, and it saddens me to see some of them dying. We haven’t been bothered with anthranose, but we have had some severe droughts over the past decade, which has been too stressful for the oldest ones. Fortunately, I have seen quite a few baby dogwoods coming up to take their place.

  2. I think that the native dogwoods aren’t too happy here in New England. In the Roanoke Valley of Virginia where I grew up, the native dogwoods bloom on roadsides as well as gardens and make for an enchanting Spring. In New England, I believe that our only choice is the Kousa, which is a stunning tree. I’m sorry to learn that its berries are of no benefit to native birds!

    • Ah, a Cornelian Cherry Dogwood is a great small tree, I wish I had one. The berries are edible, though not very tasty, probably best left for the birds. Cornelian Cherry Dogwood, as you know, has small yellow flowers in early spring, so it looks quite different from the species I mentioned.

  3. The Cornus florida and Cornus kousa in my garden do double duty, gracing the garden with vibrant red foliage in fall. Some also have a lovely form in winter, especially if a dusting of snow outlines their nearly horizontal branches. Yesterday, I purchased 3 more Cornus florida at the SC Botanical Garden’s spring plant sale for the woodland. The native is blooming now, the kousa will follow in May.

  4. Probably about half of the dogwoods used here are Cornus kousa.I prefer the blossoms of the native Cornus floridia because they are such a clean white color. Those of C. kousa, seem kind of off white in comparison. As long as they aren’t planted side by side though, most people wouldn’t notice the difference.

  5. Here in New England flowering dogwoods are everywhere, and have been overplanted in suburbia since the 1940s. Every older house has one in front. But I could not find a pagoda dogwood anywhere, and nurseries discouraged me, saying the tree is fussy and hard to grow, needing woodland conditions, and not doing well in yards.

    I have one of each — I did find and plant a young Cornus alternifolia, and of course I have the “required” flowering dogwood (pink) in front of the house. The Cornus florida gets treated for anthracnose every year.

    Your post was an interesting comparison of these two dogwoods. . . thanks for profiling them!

  6. Very informative post. I do have a dogwood in my Long Island yard — I’m just not sure what kind. It was planted long before I moved in. What I do know is that it’s actually two dogwoods — one pink and one white — and I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins.

  7. Oddly enough, I have longed to have a dogwood tree in my garden, but for one reason or another have never quite found the spot for one. They do have some disease problems in this area, so one has to be sure to choose the right variety, but there is no spring-flowering tree that is more beautiful. Maybe this will be the year when I finally find the right spot for one.

  8. I always read dogwood trees, but i haven’t encountered one or maybe not introduced in some of my temperate country visits. However, there is one dogwood which remains in my memory from the blogposts i read, it is the red-branching one that really looks like red corals when leaves dehisced fully. I just forgot the species. Now i know i love that flowering one too.

  9. Here in BC, it’s our native flower. And if you want to plant one on the coast, you might want Eddies white wonder, it’s a little hardier, and more disease resistant.

    Yours is so lovely.


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